When Rafael San Juan was growing up in Havana, there was something about the sculptures located in the city's parks that caught his attention. It is somewhat rare to see a child who spends his time examining the figure and volume of a given creation, speaking of generalities as it is logical. At that age, the group, laughter and a certain naivety prevail.
The years showed that San Juan was not an ordinary child, because from that restlessness for the forms he turned into results capable of surprising the gaze of thousands of men and women. It is enough to look at the Primavera sculpture on Havana's Malecon to know that its author is an extremely happy man with an immense creative capacity.
Primavera has a fascinating history with strong links to the Cuban ballet and this is how the artist tells it: "It was a piece that was designed, modeled and created in Cuba, with the purpose of paying homage to Cuban women. It had a very long road. Many times I went to Danza Contemporanea de Cuba and the ballet to bring out the character of the work, which took more than a year of work."
"The spontaneity of the movement came out of some poses with Viengsay Valdes, to whom after a dialogue I say, "How is your posture when you go out to the public outside Cuba, that in the end you represent what can be the essence of a Cuban woman for many?".
"I was taking pictures of her and that's where the neck twist came from. The face was worked with many women, some from the ballet, for the result of the lips, the eyes, the hair. The flowers on the head are butterflies because I wanted the piece to have a Cuban essence," acknowledged San Juan.
"All those elements built the angel of that sculpture. The models were initially taken to bronze to immortalize the work and also at the request of the public to have a replica of the original model," added the artist.
La Primavera also has several original pieces made in marble, the result of a collaborative project with the Office of the Historian of the City of Havana, especially with the late Historian of the City of Havana, Eusebio Leal Spengler.
"The first piece was made, which was kept by him. From there, a group of other works were made, such as the one in Máxima. They are unique pieces, the stone is different, even though it is carrara marble. One by one I finished them by hand", Rafael confesses.
Since it is a sculpture located in a public place and so close to the sea, its author is working on creating a stainless steel replica. The idea, says San Juan, is to place the current work in a more intimate place, "where the sea does less damage and perhaps where the vestige of what was the erosion of the sea, which is part of life, can remain".
What characterizes Rafael San Juan's monumental sculptures?
The monumental sculpture that I have made during the last 11 years, first of all, has been very important because it flowed in a very transparent way as a result of my work as a sculptor and set designer, where things always have a large scale.
From there and from various relationships with architects, my first monumental piece was located in Mexico City and it was in a building by the architect Teodoro González de León, winner of the National Architecture Prize in Mexico, author of the auditorium of Mexico, the Rufino Tamayo Museum, as well as Terminal 2 of the International Airport.
I met him at a mature age and he invited me to exhibit some works in the esplanade of La Torre. At that time I presented him the set of three sculptures "Vientos del norte" (Winds from the North).
I even have works for this type of space that are more polemic; others make an aesthetic compliment more integrated to the community, to society, to development. In my opinion, I evoke them to be made, in the end they will be a reflection on the realities of our world.
Of the materials I like steel and concrete because they are more contemporary, man is a reflection of what has evolved through them.
They are materials that par excellence represent today's humanity. We have not yet found, in a substitutable way, materials at that scale of production. I like to use them because they are carriers of their own content. Each public piece has a research behind it.
Monumental and public sculpture are an important part of my career. I have left or sacrificed personal exhibition projects in order to make public works. The new generations have a tendency to go to the networks and visit fewer museums or cultural spaces.
For me the public work is the first approach outside of an art space, where the spectator and the passerby in a non-voluntary way can encounter these pieces and have an experience.
In my personal case, when I was a child, the first relationships in art were with works I saw in parks. That approach to forms and volumes is something that continues to set a guideline for betting on a public work.
Feelings such as loss and sadness surface in some of your pieces. How do you give them the exact dramatism without going overboard?
I question all the time many schemes of life, of society and of all kinds. One must always have an optimistic thought. That equation is what you see in the pieces, that is, drama wrapped in a hope or in an advance to get out of adversity. It is part of my thinking, of my attitude and also part of how reality treats you to get out of those consequences.
Recent work by Rafael San Juan.
Are you planning to come to Cuba at some point, maybe with a project?
The truth is that I always feel I'm living in Cuba, I have my studio, my house. The times I'm away is because the same work demands it.
In 2019 I spent almost the whole year in Cuba, when Primavera took place I was in Cuba for about seven months continuously. In the biennials I have also been from three to six months. When they ask me where I live, I say Cuba. Many feel that I am in Mexico because I have done a lot of public and collection work in that country.
It also happens with the United States, for example, there are works in private collections and also in Europe. Normally I don't say where I am, I always go from one place to another. That's how reality has touched me.